Why I rejected your request for free photos

This post is dedicated to all the people who have completely lost their sense of common decency.

I have a destructive humbleness that most people do not understand (myself included). I do not have a Patreon page, I do not run ads on this website, I have never asked for donations*. However, for some reason I get the feeling that this leads people to believe I do everything for free. This could not be further from the truth. You want to use my work? Great! How about you pay me for it? No? Of course not, what was I thinking. I’m sorry.

I don’t know how I can make this easier to understand: asking a professional (any professional – not only photographers) for free work is disrespectful, rude, and insulting. You do not want to be that person. Also, let’s make one thing clear, people: unless we have an agreement in place, you don’t get to decide for me how to use my photos.

This reminds me of my first PhD supervisor, who said that giving photos away was the “humane” thing to do. Ok. Explain to me how giving up your copyright is considered humane. After all, I don’t see authors putting their texts on the public domain for humanity to enjoy or adapt without expecting some sort of payment. Don’t get me wrong. I do like to put myself out there for the right cause, by volunteering or providing imagery free of charge. However, I feel that more and more entities are trying to take advantage of my good will, almost as if it became a trend. Some of you might not know, but I am completely self-funded as of last year (cough* Know a project/position I can fit in? Want me to give a presentation for your group? Let me know!). This lifestyle is not for the faint of heart, and it is often ridden with periods of anxiety and frustration. In any case, when too many people ask me to give away free stuff, how do you expect me to buy food? Pay for the roof above my head?
“Well, how about you get a real job?”, you might ask.
Fair enough. But you know what turns the content I create into a paid job? The fact that someone wants to use it. Maybe you do not like viewing photography, entomology, or science communication as a job, in that case I cannot help you. A lot has been said and written about working for free (here’s an excellent post for example, and here’s an analysis why professional photographers cannot work for free), I even wrote about this issue in the past. Needless to say, nowadays I almost never give photos for free. One thing I learned in this business is that there will always be some people who will hate you. Whether it is because you refuse to give photos for free, or because your rates are too high, or maybe because they are jealous of your work. I am not even counting people who just hate insects, yet still bother to comment on their photos instead of looking away. Whatever it may be, it is impossible to satisfy everyone, so I do not try. People are judgmental. I recall one interesting incident in which a stranger commented on a friend’s post, calling me “just an annoying photographer”. I reached out to them and asked if we knew each other, and why they think so. We ended up chatting for some time and eventually I think they realized that I am really not that bad of a person. I still think that from time to time, it is important to make a contribution to a cause you support (more on that later). However, when someone takes advantage of your generosity and tries to make a personal gain from it – run home! And don’t stop until you get there.

All these publishers paid for the rights to use my photos. So why shouldn't you?

All these publishers paid for the rights to use my photos. So why shouldn’t you?

I must say, if you got a negative response to your request, be respectful. Whether I choose to give something for charity is entirely up to me, not the person requesting the image. I go over the photos and the intended use, and analyze each case by its characteristics. If I decide to reject it, it is not personal; it means that I just could not see how it fits my mission. Another reason for a refusal is when I do not see how the use can promote me further as a photographer. In any case, if your request was refused please do not start throwing insults. That’s not going to win you any fans, and will definitely not get you the photo for use free of charge, not this time and not the next time around. Also, if you inquire about free images and you also receive a paycheck for doing this, there is a 100% chance that I will refuse to give photos for free. Allow me to demonstrate by using typical examples for this behavior.

Case #1 – The Networking Card

A person who I do not know contacts me to request a photo for their upcoming publication. It is a small production, a personal project. There is a section in the book describing a rare phenomenon or a rarely encountered species, and my photos are perfect to illustrate said subject. Alas, there is no budget for photographs.
In this case I reject the request on the basis that anything rarely documented has its own value. Examples for such subjects are Epomis beetles, swarming locusts, tusked weta, adult botflies etc’. All these subjects took a substantial investment of time, money, and physical preparation to get the final shot. Giving those photographs away free of charge devalues my personal investment, and makes it harder to charge normal fees for use of similar photos later. It would also be unfair towards those who have already paid a licensing fee to use the photos.
To my understanding, some people do this to “test the waters” and see if the photographer is someone worthy of working with abusing in the future. In one specific case, when I rejected the request I got this reply: “Good luck making a living with the images, you have some nice shots, and publishing does not pay well…. I have for instance plenty of pictures of the ****. I just thought it might be a nice connection.”
Oh, really? So you just wanted to make acquaintances? How very nice of you. How about you start respecting someone’s work and time instead of expecting to get free stuff.

Case #2 – The Exposure Card

Many of us in the creative scene have been there: photographers, artists, illustrators, and designers. Someone from a highly reputable institution contacts to request free work in return for exposure to the creator.
Here’s the thing. You claim that by sharing my work I will gain exposure. Correct me if I am wrong, but you contacted me to ask about using my work. It seems to me that my name is already out there; I do not need any further exposure. Why don’t you take a minute to think about it and get back to me, hopefully with a budget next time.

Case #3 – The Unintentional Infringement Card

This case is a little different because it starts with a copyright infringement. A user uses my photo as a thumbnail for their video/article/social media profile. Since this use is without permission, I take it down as a copyright infringement. The user contacts me and requests to undo the DMCA take down, so they can have their original post back online. I explain that take downs are being recorded, and the only way to reverse one is to comply with the conditions of use, in other words – licensing the photo. I also add that putting my photo as the thumbnail encourages people to click the post when being shared on social media, therefore my photo directly promotes the post. I suggest to the user the fair solution of reuploading their post minus my photo. Then hell breaks loose and I am being accused of greed, trying to extort money and what not.
I wish to clarify two things:
1) A DMCA take down is not an attempt to extort payment via licensing fees. It is what it is – regaining control over a copyrighted image that has been used inappropriately or without prior permission.
2) Professional and polite communication is key in addressing cases of copyright infringements, as well as any image use inquiries. It is crucial to be clear, concise, but still provide all the relevant details. I have often been accused of having a “patronizing/condescending tone” by infringers. I can understand how polite speech can seem this way when explaining to someone their unauthorized use of intellectual property. If you cannot communicate in a civilized manner, you are not helping to solve the issue.
I will mention one specific instance here, in which someone used my photo on their personal page on social media. When I called them out on it, I got this amazing reply (see closing paragraph):

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Way to go on winning an argument. No better way to get me to block you than diverting from the main topic of discussion into accusatory politics.

Case #4 – The “you owe me” Card

A person who I know requests photos for commercial use (and that’s important) free of charge. They also inform me that they do not intend to credit me as the photographer, sign a licensing agreement detailing the specific use, or pay anything for the use. Every time I confront this, I think I misheard. You said no credit, no licensing agreement, AND no pay? So absolutely nothing in return? Truly an offer I cannot refuse.
I refuse.
Then I receive the classic response of “Well I didn’t need those photos anyway, I just gave you the chance to be human again” (see case #1). First of all, thank you for giving me that chance to prove myself! Highly appreciated. But let me ask you – What did you think was gonna happen? You think just because we know each other you can take my work and do with it as you please? I don’t think so. That ain’t how it works around here. And if you did not really need the photos, why did you waste my time?

It's not just about photos of insects, by the way. Several instances include requests for free photos of landscapes, portraits, and even commercial products (in the photo: pendant designed by Mio Konfedrat)

It’s not just about photos of insects, by the way. Several instances include requests for free photos of landscapes, portraits, and even commercial products (in the photo: pendant designed by Mio Konfedrat)

It is not all bad

I understand that some of these examples can paint me as a jerk, someone who never makes a personal contribution towards others in need. I therefore want to point out that occasionally I do allow the use of my photos with little or no return (the bare minimum is a copy of the publication though). I was recently contacted by a friend who requested photos for an upcoming book about arachnids in Israel. Since there was no budget for it, I would normally reject the request. However, in this case the two authors are responsible for my professional background: one served as my mentor and guide to the wonders of the natural world when I was a kid, the other taught me entomology at university. It is thanks to their amazing nurturing that I am who I am today. In addition, I see the importance of publishing a popular book about arachnids in Israel as something that can spread the knowledge and promote appreciation of this often-mistreated arthropod group. The authors offered a signed copy of the book when published, which I see as a valuable return. I was happy to respond positively to this request for photos, and I hope the new book will be well-received.

* A recent discussion I had with several friends made me realize that people often want to help, and that I should not stop them from doing so. After much thinking, I have decided to add a PayPal.me donation link to this website, located on the sidebar to the right (or bottom of the page in the mobile version). If you find the content I post on this website interesting and wish to show your support by giving something in return, please consider donating. Think of it as buying me a hot cocoa to keep me fuelled!

8 thoughts on “Why I rejected your request for free photos

  1. I have been an Artist my entire life. I spent an incredible amount of money and time to attain my degree in fine art. Artists are also expected to give away their work for free! I have worked just as hard as everyone else to become an expert in my field. I have children to feed! Why are artists expected to live in poverty?

    • As mentioned briefly in the post, this is a big problem for anyone in the creative scene. One of the reasons is that the public is unaware of the process of creating the work, and the time spent until mastering the techniques required to finish the work.

  2. Hi Gil,

    I mostly agree with you up to the point where you refuse to people to use your photos with your name on it as a FB profil picture. I totally agree with you that the reply of the person was inappropriate, don’t get me wrong. But I think that you chasing and contacting those people that don’t make money out of it costs more than requesting a payment that you know will never come. You lose your time and you only get a bad interaction. In most, if not all cases, people won’t understand because they didn’t mean any harm, nor gain anything (of course, I am talking about neutral profile, not politically engaged profil). I would let this example go.

    I am a scientist, and as you know we try to do our best to spread the knowledge. For this reason, I fail to understand that you justified to provide free pictures to academics (that probably did not gain much from writing the book) only because they were your mentors. You probably know Alex Wild, he was also spending a lot of time looking for copyright infringement but he has been always very generous with the biologists in sharing his pictures. As a result, you can’t go to a large conference without seeing his pictures and every body know him. He got a large respect from our community, every body knows him and for sure, if there is someone that we would call first if we have a budget, he would be the one. So, with this example I don’t think that you are right, yes, you are certainly known and I truly love your work (you are inspirational especially with your wide angle macrophotography) but by being generous with those that work to diffuse knowledge (for free), you gain even more (maybe even more money on the long term).

    Good luck with everything.

    • Thank you, David, for your comment. Of course you do not have to agree with my views, I am more interested in a live discussion on the topic and you raised some excellent points. My decision to donate photos for the arachnid book is a personal one, and I can assure you it is an outlier. I just don’t have a budget to give stuff for free. I wish I could. I was happy to read that you would turn to Alex with a budget if needed images. That is the way to go, and should be the standard. But please do not judge me for my personal decisions.

      As for the social media use, at the very minimum, people should ask permission and link back to the source. Alex Wild, whom you obviously admire, demands the same, and takes down photos posted by users who did not comply with those terms (also, our terms for free use in class and conference presentations are the same). Again, you do not have to agree. You clearly do not make a living off of photography so you do not understand the importance of a proper credit and link back in addition to the watermark already on the image.

      As a scientist myself, let me ask you – didn’t you work hard to secure funding for your research? So you are paid to diffuse knowledge “for free” (as a scientist you are also underpaid, but that is a different topic for discussion). Also, I couldn’t help noticing that you contradicted yourself: You stated that you will not hesitate to contact Alex Wild with a budget for scientific purposes, but I am expected to be generous and provide my images for free. Gotcha. This post is for you.

      • Though I could make several points about the post, I’ll just add my 2c with respect to the question brought up about use in/for scientific purposes. I think part of the problem is a sense of entitlement. Researchers feel that they are behaving in the public interest, and are contributing to the sphere of knowledge and thus should have unimpeded access to photos to aid in that mission. Look no further than the paper a year ago on the legal argument for treading over a copyright holders rights, and assimilating the photos without consent. This isn’t every researcher’s view, but there’s a certain pride (which can border arrogance) of purpose, and it’s common enough that it’s a reason I personally eschew academia.

        The photos are readily visible online, and yet tantalizingly out of reach for their specific purposes. Knowledge and its dissemination is a noble mission, one that I support, and I often do allow my images to be used free of use for that purpose, but I don’t for a moment feel like I should or have a responsibility to, and if I ever get even a whiff of the ‘responsibility to share’ argument, then I will withhold my photos from the publication. It comes down to respect and acknowledging the efforts of the photographer(s). Then there’s the slippery slope of research generation vs. dissemination. Sure research is creating new content, but what’s the value of that content if it remains buried in scientific journals, oftentimes uncorroborated, and sometimes of dubious value ie. race to publish. One should never forget that the majority of articles are still essentially inaccessible and bound up in Elsevier type publishing companies and other pay per view content. Therefore if the argument is made that it is for the sake of discovery, well, that’s a view that neglects certain economic and institutional realities of quality and accessibility. Therefore the dissemination to a non-profit blogger or other potential popularizer like IFLS would be as entitled as the original author of the science paper to the photos, since both roles are important and go hand-in-hand, especially if the photographer is a conservation photographer and educator as is the case of many wildlife photographers. These points diminish the value from the photographer’s perspective. Then there’s simply devaluation achieved by exposure. Counterintuitive perhaps, but exposure, like virality which is essentially the essence of exposure, often does little to help the photographer other than increase the number of requests for free image use.

  3. I totally agree with this very well written article.
    I’m a fashion photographer and find similar issues in the trade myself. When any professional puts his time, money, experience into a photoshoot he cannot be expected to give away anything for free. Respect for the work is a must, which unfortunately people do not understand unless made to pay.
    Kudos for the article.
    All the best.

  4. Gil, I couldn’t agree with you more. Back in the 1980s, I worked for two different stock photo agencies, FPG International and The Stock Market Photo Agency. You remember the 1980s, when photographers could actually make money (50% of the licensing fee charged) placing overshoots or actually shooting specifically for stock. Unfortunately, corporate greed now controls that industry at the expense of photographers. I think that’s called progress.

    I’m in the same position that you are now, being 100% self funded. Most of my shooting today is driven by my passion to help historical societies maintain their buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries. My philosophy has always been that you charge those people who have the ability to pay. In the case of small historical societies, that’s seldom the case, and their current libraries contain bad building interior photos, or none at all. How are they supposed to garner support from local, state, and federal funding sources if they lead with poor examples of what they are trying to save. My deal is that I grant them unlimited reproduction rights solely for their purposes while keeping the copyright to myself and my heirs. I have them sign a contract spelling out details of this agreement, and with the obligation to use my images for their fund raising efforts.

    I’m in the process of putting together a grant proposal that I plan to market around to the more generous corporations and non-profit foundations. While I get charitable receipts for the materials that I donate (paper, ink, digital recording media, etc.), it doesn’t really amount to much in the end. Getting outside funding would take the financial strain off me somewhat, as well as allow me to expand my territory and the size of the projects I take on. I was never a traditional photojournalist, but this is still “photography for social good.”

    • Thanks for commenting, Gary. It is nice to hear another perspective on this topic, especially from someone in a completely different field! I 100% agree with you regarding using the photos for expanding current knowledge. When possible, contributing to non-profits is the way to go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *